Who Will Teach Them Science if I Don’t?


I retired, and with a tremendous sense of relief I might add. I enjoy being retired. I relish my freedom to write, walk the dog and catch up on the TV I missed during earlier teaching years. I don’t miss my life of grading, writing lesson plans and trying to do the latest six impossible things that crazy administrators decided were urgent before breakfast. Another useless spreadsheet anyone? I so like being done with data demands that don’t advance student education. I so like being done with standardized-test demands that make differentiation impossible. Readers of this blog will understand.

I am also not feeling too well right now. Too much family vacation time and one-more-trip-for-ice-cream perhaps? I’m overdue at scheduling that physical.

All of this argues for a nice, slow subbing schedule filled with half-days to cover the endless meetings and doctor appointments of my not-yet-retired colleagues. I don’t need much extra money. I’m not certain I need any.

Last week, the emergency came at me in earnest. Former colleagues and friends texted. “Call the Bilingual Director,” the texts said. I called. My former district needs a full-time, long-term sub to cover six high school science classes. Apparently, the guy who was supposed to fill this position got a better offer and bailed at the last minute. The Bilingual Director, a likable woman I have known for years, is looking for a replacement, but she does not sound hopeful. She said she might even need all of the 500 hours I am allowed by Illinois retiree rules.

Here readers can see, in a nutshell, some of the ugliness that results from our inequitable school funding system. The science teacher who took that better position? I don’t blame him. A friend said to me this week-end, “But he should have honored his contract!” I don’t agree.

I am all for noble self-sacrifice and keeping promises. But for a teacher with no experience and only a bachelor’s degree, that job shift can mean the difference between getting $35,000 for the year or $45,000 — driving a mere 17 miles around here can add more than $10,000 to a starting salary. That higher starting salary may be the difference between a “living” wage and keeping your bartending job at night. I have worked with first-year colleagues who were making those martinis on the week-end. The higher starting salary in the wealthier district also usually comes with higher salary increases each year. Frequently, that higher salary comes with smaller classes and better working conditions. So I don’t blame Fred-Nye-the-Nonexistent-Science-Guy if another August offer came through at the last minute and he jumped the fence.

But now the impoverished district of my past has come hunting me. I so don’t want to do this. I am trying to finish a book on education. I absolutely don’t want to work so hard, and I know that if I take the position I will end up working all the time yet again. Because I have never abandoned a group of needy kids yet. I never will. If I take that offer, those kids will get a chance to learn science.

The money’s quite decent. In one of those ironies, this high-poverty district pays better than the other four, financially-much-stronger districts where I sometimes sub. It’s a challenge to find subs for tough districts. I am not afraid of much of anything, but there are simply middle-school and high-school classes in my old district where I will not go. I would rather forego the extra money and work in a nationally-feted district where I might luck into a talk by an author or scientist as part of my day, districts where I will not lose my “free” time to covering extra music or other classes that never found a sub.

I might end up teaching those tough classes in my old district, anyway, of course. That’s another hidden ugly that comes with being a financially and academically-disadvantaged district. I have gone into my old school to fill in for bilingual teachers and ended up teaching music. I have gone in to fill in for resource teachers and found myself in classrooms of feisty third-graders. This can happen anywhere, but my experience suggests that the magnitude of the problem varies depending on a district’s resources and classroom demands.

During my working years, I remember regularly arguing with the principal about redeploying subs. Substitute Smith would sign up for a special-education position that she expected to provide small class sizes and a teaching assistant. She would arrive at the main office while my (mostly awesome) Principal was doing the sub dance, trying to figure out how to make 5 subs cover for 8 teachers. If Ms. Smith was unlucky, the Principal might put her into an unexpected math or even gym position.

During the sub dance, some classes must be shared out to regular teachers. My Principal could disperse the special education kids into regular classrooms much more easily than all those math students. So suddenly Substitute Smith has a day with shifting groups of 26 or 28 math students in her room in a subject area she does not much like. In these Common Core times, she may not even know how to teach the material. In her time, no one made matrices to add simple sums.

I am straying off-topic here. If I want to describe challenges in a poor district that needs substitutes, though, this tangent does count. Does Substitute Smith come back to my old school after that day of math classes? Maybe not. She can always work in more prosperous, more reliable districts nearby. She does not need that impoverished district nearly as much as the district needs her. By the end of the year, my Principal might be trying to figure out what to do with 8 teachers out and only 3 subs in the building.

During certain years, I doubled up classes often. When I was out, colleagues took my kids. During a state-required, professional development, we once had six teachers out for development without a single substitute covering for us. The district had groups of teachers out from all schools, and the substitutes had naturally opted for the elementary and high school, leaving the middle school bereft of subs.

Eduhonesty: Back to the topic. I have a job offer I do not want to take. But I know some things. I know that certified bilingual science teachers like myself are thin on the ground. I know that this position could remain open for a long time. In my old middle school, we had positions that did not fill for half a year or longer. Long-term subs ran these classrooms. Or did not run these classrooms. In one instance I remember, two long-term subs quit  and students ended up with three long-term subs teaching them social studies in only a couple of months. Rotating, long-term sub fill-ins can be deadly to learning.

I also know some of these kids. I retired from the middle school a couple of years ago and my former students are now in high school. That would give me a real advantage as I stepped in late to a fiasco already in progress.

Sigh. I don’t want to take this job. Maybe I won’t. I am still thinking out here. But I return to the title of this post: Who Will Teach Them Science if I Don’t?

Maybe somebody.

Maybe nobody, though.

I have seen these long-term merry-go-rounds. They never go well.

Thoughts on the Many Teachers Who Were Me

Reflections on a May post from 2013: 

Every one who teaches and most laypeople understand that all classes and classrooms are different. The kids make the class and classes may differ radically. Enthusiasm levels, participation rates, and overall learning are heavily affected by individual student placements. Who are the leaders? If the leaders want to learn, students will learn more than they will learn in classes where the leaders have mostly come to school to socialize. Good classroom management can lessen this leadership effect, but the effect remains a force to be reckoned with.

Still, while I had always been aware that class composition affected learning, I had not much thought about how it affected me. This year was an eye-opener. I had three Spanish classes. I realize now they all had a different teacher.

The Spanish 2 teacher was much more laid-back than the Spanish 1 teacher. Most of these students did not intend to go on, but simply wanted to get in two years for college applications and graduation requirements. I sometimes went off the script in that class. I checked in with the five out of twenty-nine students who planned a third year of Spanish before any significant deviations, since they were the students who cared and who needed to be prepared for the upcoming year.

Spanish 1 was its own story. The Spanish 1 teacher in the afternoon was much more flexible and humorous than the Spanish 1 teacher in the morning. I look back and I honestly don’t like the person who taught that morning Spanish 1 class. In response to the negativity of students, I became progressively more negative.

My morning class would have enjoyed that afternoon teacher so much more than the teacher they had. But the students shape the class. The students also shape the teacher. Some dynamics and attitudes become tough to change.

I (re)post this idea today because of issues of timing. This post is for newbies. You are establishing a classroom character right now, even if the tumult of getting started obscures this fact. These first few weeks can create a classroom dynamic that flows throughout the whole year.

I write this because I messed up a few years back. I had four preps that year, two bilingual social studies and two Spanish preps. I had a 304 page Spanish book to cover. All of this was new to me at the time. The workload was extraordinary and, frankly, it overwhelmed me. I managed to get lessons prepared and I handled the nuts and bolts of my responsibilities. But one class got away from me, becoming progressively more difficult to manage. Too many students became resentful of class expectations, unsurprisingly, since they had been obliged to take Spanish as an “elective,” an elective many did not desire. As I look back, I realize that as soon as the negativity started cropping up in earnest, I should have been much less focused on textbook demands and more focused on class emotions.

Eduhonesty: After a few weeks at the latest, new teachers, look out into your classroom. How is the mood? Do you have students pulling that mood down? Move them up front, or at least out of the crowd. Sit down with them. Take time to show them the advantages of what they are learning. Show them you care that they are learning. Let them know you are concerned about their negativity.

Break any deteriorating mood as fast you can. Because once a classroom atmosphere sours, a self-defeating cycle may be created. Negative students make other students more negative, newly negative students who make other students more negative until you end up with that girl who says loudly and aggressively, in a class with numerous Hispanic students, “I don’t see why we have to learn Mexican. They should learn English.”

To build lifelong learners, we have to sell our product, whether that product is mathematics, English, Spanish, or whatever our subject matter. English does not always sell itself, depending on the curriculum and mix of a class. A foreign language seldom sells itself to students who did not select that language for themselves, simply because of the amount of work involved. New teacher, if you are beginning to teach Spanish, that’s probably because you love Spanish. Teachers gravitate towards areas of deep, personal interest.

Whatever you teach, share the love. Share the love and show how and why you came to love your subject. You may think you do not have time because of the 304 page book you must finish by May. I learned from that class a few years ago, though — that book can kill the love if you don’t watch out. Bit by bit, day by day, watch how students are feeling out in the classroom. When you have a teachable moment, seize it. Forget the need to make page 65 by Tuesday. If you can get your students to enjoy what they are doing, getting them to page 65 becomes much more doable. If you cannot get to page 65, you will still be far better off with enthusiastic students on page 56 than with burnt-out, unhappy students who just wish they could chuck their book and maybe their whole school schedule into the trash.

And keep in mind that you will be a different person to every class you teach. Every class becomes its own creature. You forge a unique set of relationships from hour to hour. Try to see each hour through the eyes of the students sitting in the room. You might ask a few students how they see their class. Relationships should not be put on the backburner due to curricular demands. In school and in life, relationships should come before tests and spreadsheets. Good relationships demand give and take and collaboration.

Don’t let curricular demands interfere with the good relationships that make teaching fun.

P.S. I was locked into that book by mandatory midterms and finals that had been written by a group in the Board Office for multiple high schools within the district. As requirements become less flexible, teachers may have to fight to keep class attitude positive. Ironically, extra projects can definitely help, although you may struggle to devote class time to these projects due to curricular requirements. Creative projects help infuse enough enthusiasm into the classroom to carry you through the Long March of the Book.

Random Google Docs that Come with the Territory

For newbies and others. At first, I thought I was writing to new teachers. Upon reflection, I am writing to and for a great many colleagues, even some who are nearing retirement. Please, experienced teachers, reach out to mentor the new teachers who can use your help and wisdom.

For new and aspiring teachers, the professional demands that do not directly involve instructing children can be the biggest surprise during those first few weeks of school. Testing has been spiraling out of control for years. We are only now beginning to rein in the testing monster. Data demands are still out of control. Principals demand data walls, data rooms, shared google data docs etc.

Elementary teachers should find these demands less onerous than their middle school and high school counterparts. Ironically, higher-achieving districts may require less data, too, since they are already succeeding at the data game. Compiling that data may be simpler in those higher-achieving districts; often, their systems have been in place for years, so experienced teachers will be able to help you with expectations. In contrast, my low-scoring, financially-disadvantaged district had a history of changing/adding systems and software every year in desperate bids to find cheaper products and solutions while simultaneously pushing up state test scores. Figuring out the new software and data requirements became an almost annual ritual.

I became very good at figuring out new software.

Are you starting in a poor district, newbie? The odds are good you are. After the first year or two, teachers tend to leave tough districts to take easier and/or more lucrative positions, opening up positions usually filled by newly-minted teachers.

Don’t let the chaos overwhelm you. Ask for help. Find mentors if you have not been assigned a mentor. Find mentors even if you have been assigned a mentor. The mentor you are given may not be the mentor you need. Hunt down coaches, but be careful. Experienced teachers often know a great deal more than young coaches, who may be regrettably lacking in classroom experience.

Last bit of advice: Take a deep breath, then another deep breath, and relax. Then data as fast as you can. Slap that wall up. Up the size of your McDonald’s or Dunkin Donuts coffee. Don’t bog down in small details. Finish that google doc so you can get on with what matters.

You may well be thinking, “But I can’t do all this extra stuff! I have to get my lessons ready! I have to get my classroom ready! I need to call these parents! I need to get someone to fix my doorknob!” Your mind may be roiling with instructional imperatives that seem to require your immediate attention.

Eduhonesty: Here’s where education has been getting rougher of late. You are a teacher. You naturally want to teach. All these data-based and other activities that interfere with the preparation and delivery of instruction may seem extraneous and aggravating. You may be looking at the opportunity costs of your non-instructional demands and thinking that all those shared Google Docs are nuts. You may be right, too. But principals are surviving based on numbers nowadays, and your principal may have to generate those numbers to keep his or her job.

The fix required to get you and your principal out of the hole we have dug cannot be accomplished during August or September. America desperately needs that fix, but you cannot make that fix happen right now. So dispatch those data requirements as quickly as possible, and get on with your real job —  teaching children.

When you can breathe a little, I will suggest you go looking for professional organizations dedicated to bringing sanity back to the teaching profession. Go find BATs. Go find other local, education organizations. Become a voice for the children whose educations are suffering from well-meaning plans run amok.

During August and September, though, consider adding a new deep breathing or relaxation app to your phone, and just keep moving. Get to know your kids. Have some fun. Jeopardy and Kahoot! games can be great ways to find out what knowledge your students are bringing into the classroom.

One step at a time.

Hugs to my readers everywhere.

P.S. I am absolutely not against data-driven instruction. I am in favor of rational use of available time, however, and an annual benchmark test combined with class test, project and quiz results ought to be enough data to use to prepare quality, differentiated instruction. You can always look into the cum folder, too. Does the cost of gathering data above and beyond those benchmark tests and classroom assessments justify the time loss? I’d say hardly ever. We need to address this concern. But for now, new teachers, just speed-staple the borders around your data displays and keep going. The objective is to clear the maximum amount of time for actual instruction and preparation of instruction.


The Test Monster’s Hidden Teeth

Hi newbie! Or established reader. Or alien exploring Earth’s mysterious culture. Hello to all my readers.

I’d like to start today by quoting from the eminent sage, Fred Rogers, gone but not forgotten in a time when Fred Roger’s neighborhood is a reminder of soft songs, puppets, and quiet messages about kindness, compassion and sharing.

“The world needs a sense of worth, and it will achieve it only by its people feeling that they are worthwhile,” Fred once said.

What does it take to feel worthwhile? I’d ask. In other words, what does it take to develop self-esteem? We debate nitty-gritty details, but in the end I have come to believe that most kids’ self-esteem will stand up to challenges when a student feels lovable and competent. We can work to make our students feel lovable, but that piece will seldom provide resilience by itself. Students need a sense of agency, a sense that their actions can change their lives and world.

That’s what poorly-handled testing can take away. If your administration demands that you regularly administer tests that your students are “failing,” based on common lesson plans, the Common Core, a fierce desire for ever more benchmark data, or whatever — you MUST do damage control. What can you do?

  1. After emphasizing they must do their best, tell students they are taking a diagnostic test to find out what students in the grade know so that instruction can be prepared to teach them what they don’t know. Emphasize that not knowing answers is fine. The questions they miss will tell teachers what to teach.
  2. Have students make a note of what they don’t know that they especially wish to learn, if appropriate.
  3. Create the tutoring time necessary to get at least some students ready to pass. If that time does not exist in school, try to come up with a library, McDonalds or similar afterschool plan. Call parents. Get as much buy-in as you can. Sometimes a few extra weekly hours of tutoring may do the trick. In my experience, kids who will not go to the library will go to McDonalds.
  4. Give extra tests or projects that you know students can do. You may be drowning in required tests, but that extra Martian calendar project can be a win for students who are never winning. You have to create wins — and real wins that represent genuinely successful academic efforts. What those wins might be will depend on student ages and the content you teach.
  5. Never miss a chance to praise a successful academic effort.

For some readers, this post may not apply at all. But I lived through the year of six benchmark tests combined with unreadable tests written by an East-Coast consulting firm based on math years above my students operating levels, and mandatory quizzes based on those mostly deadly tests.

Should the inappropriate tests be coming too thick and fast, please, new teachers do what you have to do to make sure your students hang onto the sense that they are worthwhile. Make sure they get regular chances to produce worthy efforts of which they can be proud.

P.S. I admit the McDonald’s plan has nutritional drawbacks. You could do this in the classroom with healthier popcorn and water. That would be cheaper, too. Kids mostly bought their own McDonalds — and tried to buy mine — but I sprang for the occasional treat. If you came, you did not go hungry. Food is one of your best weapons in the meet-me-for-tutoring arsenal.


Put This Upfront or Right beside Your Desk

Some kids just can’t let go. Why can’t we go outside. Mr. Smith’s class is outside. Why can’t we use markers instead? Why does Erica get to be line leader? Why can’t we listen to music? Why can’t I use my phone? My phone has a calculator! Why can’t we go to lunch early? Mr. Smith always does. Why do I have to sit in front? Why can’t I sit by the window? It’s too hot here. When will you change the seating chart?

Whining can get exhausting if you don’t shut it down quickly.


Maybe you will put together those classroom rules as a group. That’s great. You want to be able to say, “We agreed on these rules.” You want buy-in — and class participation helps enormously to get that buy-in.

But you can lose hours over the course of a month if you always try to explain the rationales for your requirements. Especially those new teachers who are not yet parents may struggle to lay down the law of the classroom. Most of us plan never to say, “Because I told you so!” to our kids. We intend to explain our reasoning and get our children to agree with us for the right reasons. When there’s time, I favor that approach.

But time is of the essence in teaching. Whining eats minutes like a voracious dog in a Kibbles bag. Whining also can exhaust a teacher, who has a lesson plan to get through and who is juggling who knows how many administrative requirements with extra paperwork. I just finished a state-required module on asthma and I am a retired teacher. But subs must do the modules too. I have at least five more to go.

New teacher, you are probably going to be crazy busy. You don’t want to be discussing phones or seating choices. Prepare a set of quick lines to move the discussion along.

“No changes to the seating chart. I will make changes later this year. But we need to develop our routines together right now.”

Then point to the sign. Change the subject. Don’t let yourself be redirected back to that seating chart. If you say, “We will switch when we get to the next unit, you will have waiting students demanding their new chart as soon as you go from chapter three to chapter four. Avoid anything that sounds like a promise, although it’s reasonable to assure students that their chart is not fixed in stone. YOU will want to fix your chart after you see where the problems begin to crop up.

Your class. Your rodeo. You are in charge.

Ignore Mr. Smith. Some kids are experts at using dad to get around mom and vice versa. Heck, maybe you were one of them. That should help you as you teach. The Mr. Smith ploy will be used on inexperienced teachers especially. Sensing that you are still insecure, students will take advantage and tell you “Mr. Smith allows phones/early recess/candy in the classroom” etc. Remember:

  1. Mr. Smith probably does not allow the free-for-all your students are describing.
  2. Even if Mr. Smith allows those phones and fidget spinners, you are not Mr. Smith and you do not have to do anything Mr. Smith does that seems to disrupt or slow down your class.
  3. As soon as you do allow an activity based on Mr. Smith’s class, you will be hearing about that Smith guy until you want to hide in the closet at the mere mention of his name.
  4. You don’t want to change horses in midstream very often. Can you change a rule? Yes, if that seems wise. In a school with a great deal of broken technology, you may want to sign off on short periods of phone usage. The phones are computers and sometimes any search engine in a storm will do. But be aware that changes beget demands for more changes, and all those demands suck away time.

The “NO WHINING” sign can be a winner. When you want to shut down a discussion, repeat the rule or expectation and point at the sign. If a student attempts to continue, in a calm, firm, teacher voice, say, “No whining!” Then redirect.

“It is too soon to change seating charts. Please go back to your seat.”

Eduhonesty: Having given this advice, I now have to backtrack a bit. Please always listen to students. And follow your gut. I worked in difficult schools and I sometimes broke my rules. This almost always caused me trouble, but sometimes rules must be broken. When “Analilia” asked to take “Dana” with her to the bathroom because she did not feel safe going alone, I looked at 85? pound Analilia — and I broke my “only one person goes to the bathroom at a time” rule. But Analilia seldom asked to go to the bathroom and those bathrooms had been the source of some recent, ugly disciplinary issues. Safety first. For days, I heard, “But you let Analilia and Dana go!” Honesty helps in this situation. Explain your reasoning, because you can’t ignore rules and then not explain why. Not explaining will lead to a perception of favoritism that’s potentially deadly to classroom atmosphere. Kids can understand “very little girl, scary bathrooms.” They don’t understand unexplained favoritism.

Questions of bullying related to seating charts also should be addressed immediately.

Always err on the side of safety and student support.

Eduhonesty: No one said this job was easy!